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Pagosa Springs’ voters will be asked to decide a number of important issues during this April’s election, and the town council spent a significant amount of time at last week’s meeting setting the ballot language for those questions.
One of the more controversial ballot items involves an initiative created by a group of local citizens led by Christine Funk from the Friends of Reservoir Hill.
“A few of us were talking about charter changes that might help increase participation in local government,” Funk explained to SUN staff yesterday.
Funk had participated in a town council work session held Jan. 3, where some of the topics included eliminating the district seats, setting term limits and providing compensation for the mayor and councilors.
“We knew after the work session,” Funk continued, “that the mayor and Darrel (Mayor Ross Aragon and council member Darrel Cotton) had repeatedly said ‘no way’ to compensation, so the petition route was the only way to get the idea in front of the voters.”
According to town clerk April Hessman, on Jan. 2 the town received a statement of intent to circulate a petition to amend the charter, and on Jan. 8 it received the petition itself with 75 total signatures. While 13 of those signatures were accompanied by incorrect information and three belonged to people who were not registered electors of the town, 59 signatures were valid, requiring Hessman to certify the petition as sufficient.
“We all felt that, given the time it takes to be mayor and a council member,” Funk said, “there needed to be compensation, at least a bit.”
Funk elaborated, given there are normally two official meetings per month, her plan would pay the mayor $150 per meeting and the councilors $100.
“I know there are many more meetings,” Funk admitted, “but we wanted to start somewhere so that the voters would vote for it. Most everyone I talked to could not believe that they don’t get paid already, so it wasn’t a hard sell at all.”
Most of the town council members, however, were not buying it at last week’s meeting.
Town manager David Mitchem started by reading the title for Ordinance 803, an ordinance submitting to the registered electors of the Town of Pagosa Springs the question of amending Article 2, Section 2.1 of the Home Rule Charter of the Town of Pagosa Springs to provide for compensation for the mayor and other members of town council.
Should the matter make it past the April election, the new section of the Home Rule charter will read, “The Mayor shall be compensated for his or her service to the town in the fixed amount of $300 per month. Each council member shall be compensated for their services to the town in the fixed amount of $200 per month.”
Council member Don Volger set the tone for the discussion by asking, “Since this is a citizen’s initiative, we can’t deny it going on the ballot, correct?”
“Given the signatures are sufficient and certified by the town clerk,” Mitchem confirmed, “the answer is no.”
However, council member Tracy Bunning commented, “I understand the initiative is coming as the result of a citizens’ petition, but I would like to go on record as saying I am not in favor of this.”
“That makes two of us,” Volger agreed.
“I am not in favor of it,” Cotton chimed in. “We’re ceding this decision-making group to the voters and we don’t have a function anymore; all we need is someone to count the votes. The town just keeps moving further away from a republican form of government, and now we’re going to get paid for it. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Council member David Schanzenbaker admitted he helped circulate the petition and gathered signatures. “I think it’s a good idea. We need to encourage people to participate more, and this might help by giving them something back for their time.”
“If we are going to pay them, then they’re not volunteering,” Cotton countered, “and I think volunteerism is an important part of who we are as a people. When that volunteerism goes away, part of who we are goes away with it.”
“I’m going to have to agree with the comment trustee Bunning made,” the mayor added. “Up until about three years ago, we used to have pizza here, but then we decided maybe it was taking a toll on the town, because at that time things were pretty hard, so we quit that. A slice of pizza and a bottle of water, and we thought that was extravagant. Now we’re going to go from one extreme to another.”
When Volger asked what the consequences would be if they decided not to put the initiative on the ballot, Mitchem strongly encouraged the council not to go down that road.
“It needs to go on the ballot,” councilor Kathie Lattin admitted, “and I understand what David (Schanzenbaker) is trying to do, but I like to donate my time to all of these causes and do the best job I can.”
“I see litter along the highways,” the mayor said, “and I say, ‘Thank God we have people who volunteer.’ They remain anonymous; I don’t even know who does it, but every once in a while you will see a bunch of people with red trash bags, picking up trash. I swell with pride at the kind of participation we get in this community. People volunteer, and they want to do something for nothing because they care about this community.”
When Lattin made the motion to approve the ordinance, it was difficult for Hessman to determine how many people voted “Aye” or “Nay,” so a roll call was required. This nearly created a legal nightmare for the town when Bunning and the mayor both voted “Nay” and all eyes turned to Cotton.
If Cotton had also voted against the ordinance it would have failed, effectively denying a legally submitted citizen petition.
“If I vote no we will have to go to court, right?” Cotton asked for clarification. “I want to vote ‘No,’ but I don’t want to go to court over this.”
Mitchem made a strong appeal that Cotton allow the issue to go onto the April ballot, and in the end Cotton, Volger, Lattin and Schanzenbaker all said, “Aye.”
“We all feel their time is valuable,” Funk concluded in her later interview with the SUN. “It is important to get the next generation involved in their community. We hope this helps sway community members that might think about running for office.”
In related news, town council passed the first reading of three additional ordinances related to the April election.
Ordinance 804 is, “an ordinance of the Town of Pagosa Springs submitting to the registered electors voting in the regular municipal election to be held April 8, 2014, a ballot issue concerning the imposition of a town-wide sales tax imposed on the sale of tangible personal property at retail and the furnishing of services to be deposited into a town recreation center fund and used solely for the purpose of operating and maintaining a community recreation center and providing for the repayment of revenue bonds issued for such purposes; to provide for the submission of this ordinance for approval at the general municipal election; and to amend the Pagosa Springs municipal code.”
After reading the full title of the ordinance, Mitchem jokingly thanked town attorney Bob Cole for his wordiness in naming it. Cole, along with two representatives from George K. Baum, the town’s bonding agency, joined the discussion by phone to answer any questions about how this issue will affect the town’s finances.
The discussion lasted more than thirty minutes.
Ordinance 802 will ask voters to amend section 6 of the home rule charter in order to solidify the municipal court’s authority to enforce the town’s municipal code.
Ordinance 801 called for the regular election of the mayor and three council members. While Aragon has already announced his intention to not seek another re-election, the other three — Lattin, Volger and Cotton — have made no official announcements.